The Democratic Primary In This Texas Border District Tests Limits Of A Progressive Wave

In an uphill fight to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar, attorney Jessica Cisneros is banking on generational change.

As Texas voters head to the polls in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, the second-largest stash of national convention delegates hangs in the balance.

But beyond the top of the ticket, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is battling a resurgent former Vice President Joe Biden for dominance, the state is also due to host the most closely watched Democratic House primary of the 2020 election cycle.

In South Texas’s vast 28th Congressional District, progressive immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, 26, is hoping to unseat conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is 64. Cuellar’s history of opposition to abortion rights, gun regulation and tougher union protections, as well as his support for the fossil fuel industry and some of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, have earned him the enmity of an array of labor unions, reproductive rights and progressive groups.

Although Cisneros has raised more than any of Cuellar’s challengers in recent memory and she enjoys the support of some of the country’s leading progressives — including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — most observers maintain that she is in a tough fight. 

Young Latino turnout is key. Terence Garrett, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

That’s because Cuellar, an eight-term incumbent, leads a family that dominates politics in the border city of Laredo and benefits from the largesse of the national Democratic establishment as well as deep-pocketed corporate interests and ideologically conservative groups. He also holds power in a heavily Roman Catholic, Latino region where the typical voting population has more socially conservative leanings; the growing contingent of young Latinos with more liberal views, as well as more impoverished residents, are more likely to sit out elections.

Since Cisneros has generated more attention and resources than any of the left’s congressional primary challengers this cycle, a loss would be disappointing. The region’s conservative bent would make her win that much more transformational, however — and inspire fear in incumbent Democrats across the country.

A win for Cisneros “would show that progressivism, as exhibited by Ocasio-Cortez, can even reach into the recesses of South Texas,” said Texas politics expert Terence Garrett, who chairs the public affairs department at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “It would be a dramatic shift.”

The race is also a “bellwether” for Democrats hoping to turn Texas blue, according to Garrett. Higher-than-normal participation from young people and other infrequent voters in the low-turnout region would benefit Cisneros and Sanders but also portend well for Democrats’ chances of bringing the state into the party’s column in November, he predicted.

“Young Latino turnout is key,” he said.

Progressive views helped win Jessica Cisneros high-profile national endorsements. Her success depends on convincing infrequen
Progressive views helped win Jessica Cisneros high-profile national endorsements. Her success depends on convincing infrequent voters that she can improve their lives.

South Texas’s AOC — Or Something Else Entirely?

The parallels between the campaigns of Cisneros and Ocasio-Cortez are obvious. Cisneros, a native of Laredo, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who transcended a childhood of modest means to obtain a law degree and serve a vulnerable immigrant population in New York City. She is taking on a far more conservative male incumbent more than twice her age with a powerful political machine at his disposal. And she was the first candidate that Justice Democrats, the left-wing group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez for the 2018 elections, enlisted this cycle to take out a Democrat they deemed out of step with his district.

Cuellar’s conservative record in a host of key policy areas makes then-Rep. Joe Crowley, whom Ocasio-Cortez unseated, seem like a socialist by comparison. Cuellar served as secretary of state to then-Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2000, and in 2018 he raised money for a House Republican from Texas whom Democrats were trying to unseat. Prior to his 2018 reelection, Cuellar had an A rating from the National Rifle Association for opposing new gun regulations and a 15% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America. The political statistics site FiveThirtyEight estimated that in the Congress prior to the current one, Cuellar voted with Trump nearly 69% of the time. 

But despite modest adjustments, including a vote to close loopholes in the gun background check system, Cuellar has largely maintained his hawkish and corporate-friendly record as he seeks reelection. In January, Cuellar was the rare House Democrat to express unqualified approval of Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike in Iraq. 

The following month, he was one of just seven House Democrats to vote against the PRO Act, which would make it easier for American workers to unionize. He specifically criticized the law’s abolition of state-level right-to-work laws that allow workers to enjoy union representation without having to pay dues, claiming the law “protects” workers from mandates to pay dues to the union that represents them.

Go find somebody who’s not working hard, go find somebody who’s not working in their district and challenge them in a primary. Texas state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond (D)

In the current election cycle, Cuellar is the top recipient in Congress of donations from the private prison industry and the second-highest recipient of donations from payday lenders

“We have a representative who represents a very poor district, a border district. He has demonstrated an allegiance not to the people in the district but to the elites in the district,” said Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, the state’s main labor umbrella group, which is backing Cisneros.

The parallels with Ocasio-Cortez have their limits. Unlike Crowley, Cuellar, the son of immigrant farmworkers from Mexico, is Latino, as is a majority of his constituents. He maintains a home in his district, leverages his seat on the Appropriations Committee to bring home a steady stream of federal funding and represents an electorate that is widely viewed as less progressive than residents of the Bronx and Queens. 

State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a Cuellar ally who represents part of the 28th District in the Texas Legislature, rejected the parallel outright, arguing that progressives inspired by Ocasio-Cortez were targeting the wrong man.

“Go find somebody who’s not working hard, go find somebody who’s not working in their district and challenge them in a primary,” Raymond said. “I just think he deserves reelection.”

Raymond highlighted Cuellar’s advocacy in the past year for a revised North American Free Trade Agreement that protected the international trade that is the economic lifeblood of Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley. Trade in Laredo, a major crossing point into Mexico, continues to grow, earning the city the distinction of hosting what is now the largest trade port in the country

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) speaks as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) looks on. Pelosi has supported Cuellar despite h
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) speaks as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) looks on. Pelosi has supported Cuellar despite his divergence from the Democratic mainstream.

‘He Must Be Worried’

Regardless of his work in the district, a host of progressive groups sees in Cisneros’s bid an opportunity to knock off an obstacle to their policy goals. They have steadily begun spending heavily to elect Cisneros, making her the rare progressive challenger with substantial outside support, including from abortion rights groups, such as EMILY’s List, that are traditionally associated with the Democratic establishment. Several Texas labor unions, the progressive Working Families Party and EMILY’s List have spent a combined sum of more than $600,000 in ads and other materials supporting Cisneros and nearly $1 million blasting Cuellar. The Texas Organizing Project, a progressive community organization affiliated with the Center for Popular Democracy, is helming a canvassing effort for Cisneros in San Antonio ― outside of Cuellar’s political base in Laredo.

Meanwhile, Cuellar has marshaled additional financial backing from groups that otherwise almost exclusively support Republicans. The United States Chamber of Commerce has spent about $200,000 on his behalf. The conservative billionaire Charles Koch’s super PAC Americans for Prosperity Action, which is typically aligned with the right wing of the Republican Party, has spent nearly $80,000 to reelect Cuellar ― making him the first Democrat to receive the group’s backing.

In addition, a dark money group of unknown origins, calling itself Allied Workers for Progress, began a $720,000 ad blitz for Cuellar in January. And a self-styled progressive super PAC funded by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s PAC spent $250,000 on mailers characterizing Cisneros as an interloper from New York City. (Cisneros worked in legal aid there for low-income immigrant clients after law school before returning home to Laredo to run for office.)

In a bid to shore up some of his more liberal constituents, Cuellar has welcomed the fundraising prowess and star power of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is to Cuellar’s left on major policy issues. Pelosi visited Cuellar’s campaign headquarters in Laredo in late February, calling for a “resounding victory” for Cuellar. 

The visit surprised Garrett, given the ideological gulf between Cuellar and the House leader. “He must be worried,” Garrett said. “I was floored to see that.”

At the same time, Cuellar has refused to debate Cisneros. And some of the outside support for Cuellar from more right-wing corners has provided fodder for Cuellar’s adversaries. The support of a Koch-founded group is the subject of at least one pro-Cisneros television ad

“Why would a right-wing Republican billionaire be supporting a supposed Democrat like Henry Cuellar?” the narrator asks in a 30-second spot that the WFP is spending $50,000 to air in the district. “It’s simple: Henry Cuellar votes with Donald Trump 70% of the time.” 

Labor would be at the table [during the drafting of climate legislation]. Rick Levy, president, Texas AFLCIO

Groups supporting the Green New Deal ― a broad framework for ending fossil fuel use within 10 years ― have taken a particular interest in unseating Cuellar. 

The youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement is calling on its army of activists to make calls and knock on doors for Sanders, Cisneros and two other Democrats competing in primaries to take on incumbent Texas Republicans in the House. Sunrise’s calculation is that making electoral inroads in Texas, where the oil and gas industries are strongly influential, would be a major coup for the Green New Deal movement.

“If we can show that running boldly on the Green New Deal without moderating or hedging is a path to victory for Democrats, we think it can transform the entire conversation in this nation,” Sunrise’s political director Evan Weber told HuffPost in February.

Cuellar, who has received more than $850,000 from the oil and gas industry over the course of his career ― and $116,000 from fossil fuel PACs this cycle alone ― has cast himself as a climate pragmatist capable of shepherding effective change without wiping out local jobs.

But one force working in Cisneros’s favor is the support of much of the state’s organized labor movement, which has, in other parts of the country, emerged as a vocal critic of more radical climate change policies.  

The Texas AFL-CIO represents unions active in the fossil fuel industry but nonetheless endorses Cisneros, who supports the Green New Deal. 

Asked to explain his lack of reservations about Cisneros’s positions, the Texas AFL-CIO’s Levy noted that the Green New Deal is still “aspirational” and that Cisneros assured the state’s unions that “labor would be at the table” during the drafting of climate legislation.

The labor federation has sent materials informing its 20,000 members in the district about its endorsement of Cisneros.

The Texas AFL-CIO, a major labor union umbrella group, sent mailers to an estimated 20,000 families with union members in Tex
The Texas AFL-CIO, a major labor union umbrella group, sent mailers to an estimated 20,000 families with union members in Texas's 28th Congressional District.

Progressive Stars Missing In Action?

Much of the coverage of Cisneros’s race has focused on her embrace of national progressive priorities, such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, as well as the endorsements she has picked up from Sanders, Warren and Ocasio-Cortez.

But Strother, the Cuellar campaign spokesman, has openly mocked the influence of national progressive groups, like Sunrise Movement, in the district. “If they have a footprint in this district, it must be the size of a small rabbit,” he told HuffPost in mid-February. 

It’s possible that the high-profile progressive politicians backing Cisneros share Strother’s apparent lack of confidence in her prospects since none of them ― Sanders, Warren or Ocasio-Cortez ― has visited the district to campaign for Cisneros in the final weeks and days before the election. 

Warren did hold a rally with Cisneros in September, and two campaign surrogates ― Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro ― have also endorsed Cisneros. (Castro is hosting a canvass kickoff for Cisneros on Tuesday.)

A spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign said the New York congresswoman had to attend events in her district over the weekend and return to Washington on Monday. And a spokesperson for Sanders’s Texas operation said simply that the campaign was focused on Sanders winning delegates. The formal endorsement appears to be the extent of Sanders’s support, though someone in his Rio Grande Valley office said many of the campaign’s volunteers are also working for Cisneros. 

There was easy fruit to be picked off the tree down here, and it just hasn’t happened. Nick Kiersey, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Chuck Rocha, a Texas native who has pioneered the Sanders’s campaign’s aggressive courtship of Latinos, suggested that enterprising down-ballot progressives might still profit from the campaign’s statewide ad blitz and ground game footprint. The campaign, he said, has spent over $1 million on Spanish-language television ads alone in Texas, targeting regions like the Rio Grande Valley in Texas’s 28th District, where Latinos are more likely to primarily be Spanish speakers. 

Rocha allowed, however, that the Sanders campaign had erected a ground game in more rural corners of the state later than it had hoped, opening a field office in McAllen ― a city in the Rio Grande Valley just outside the 28th District ― in mid-February.

It’s a source of disappointment for some local progressive activists.

“If anything, I would say Cisneros’ operation has been pulling Sanders’ campaign along, rather than the other way around,” said Nick Kiersey, a political science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who knocks on doors for both Sanders and Cisneros.  

“There was easy fruit to be picked off the tree down here, and it just hasn’t happened,” he added. “AOC is venerated like a rock star down here. If she came down, if Bernie came down, it would be pure insanity.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at a rally in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 23. His decision not to add South Texas's border regi
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at a rally in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 23. His decision not to add South Texas's border regions to his campaign trail tour has disappointed some activists.

All Politics Is Local? 

To some extent, though, the lack of national celebrity may be a blessing for Cisneros, who has to find a way to translate progressive buzzwords into terms her often-apolitical, working-class constituents can understand. Even Kiersey concedes that ideas like Medicare for All resonate less at the doors than general appeals to boost wages, and to provide relief from rising health care and higher education costs. The Texas AFL-CIO’s literature likewise touts Cisneros’s commitment to “universal health care” rather than Medicare for All, which is occasionally a source of acrimony for unions that have fought hard for employer-supported health benefits.

It’s a message that Cisneros is leaning in to in the final days before the campaign.

“This race isn’t about progressive versus conservative, liberal versus moderate ― this is about electing someone who will truly fight for and represent our communities,” Cisneros said in a statement to HuffPost on Friday. “We’re tired of politicians and the status quo.”

De-nationalizing the race can benefit Cisneros in other ways as well, opening a path for conservative landowners who don’t “feel the Bern” but are angry about the construction of Trump’s border wall, according to Garrett, who argues that it’s an issue where Cuellar is vulnerable to charges that he has not sufficiently fought the wall. 

Cuellar voted for a spending bill that funded the border wall in 2018. He ended up voting against a new round of funding this year. But along the way, he shaped the funding bill’s development, including through the insertion of language allotting federal funding for a riverwalk area in Laredo alongside the wall that critics fear could institutionalize the wall by allowing much-coveted federal funding to be tied to the wall’s completion.

“He’s been riding the fence ― figuratively and literally,” Garrett said.

I’ve lost faith in the monster that Henry Cuellar has become. ex-employee, Webb County Sheriff's Office

There is also apparently local resentment about the political patronage network Cuellar and his family members operate in Webb County, where Laredo is located. He is effectively running on a slate with his brother Martin Cuellar, sheriff of Webb County; his sister Rosie Cuellar, Webb County tax assessor; and other assorted allies, such as Eduardo Chapa, a former spokesman for the sheriff’s office running for chair of the Webb County Democratic Party.

Four former employees of the Webb County Sheriff’s Office, who asked for anonymity to protect against professional retaliation, told HuffPost that Martin Cuellar had forced them to spend their off-hours and compensatory time to campaign for candidates on the Cuellar slate, including the congressman. One ex-employee recounted the sheriff demoting him from street duty to jail duty after he showed up late for a canvassing shift after spending all night on a federal immigration enforcement detail.

“I support Jessica Cisneros because the reign of the Cuellars, it needs to stop already,” the ex-employee said.

Strother, the Cuellar campaign spokesman, declined to respond to a question about the allegations unless the ex-employees revealed their identities. He also declined to respond to several other criticisms of Cuellar’s record.

Cuellar’s backers and his critics liken his family’s hold on the region to that of the Kennedys in Massachusetts. 

“I’ve lost faith in the monster that Henry Cuellar has become,” said a second ex-employee of the sheriff’s office. “And the whole Cuellar family ― they call themselves the Kennedys of Laredo!”

State Rep. Raymond, the Cuellar ally, said that county employees have civil service protections that allow them to seek redress if they are victims of patronage-motivated discrimination. He even suggested that complaints about the Cuellars’ political dominance might be motivated by anti-Latino sentiment. (All of the ex-employees who spoke to HuffPost are Latino.)

“Nobody complained about the Bushes, nobody complained about the Kennedys ― so why complain about a Hispanic family whose father immigrated from Mexico and came from very modest circumstances?” Raymond said.